If law firms want to be different then Make Client Service your No 1 Priority. PERIOD!

Rant

Lawyers don’t take client service seriously enough. Not all, but quite a few, only rise to the ‘occasion’ when the client screams, shouts or threatens to complain.

If you want to generate (Endless) word of mouth referrals, stop worrying about business development and marketing and how to differentiate your firm/yourself from the plethora of other firms/lawyers, and make a pledge, starting Today, that client service will be the Alpha and Omega of our firm/my practice. Say to yourself:

“We will not stop until we have provided excellent, WOW, stunning client service where we are open and transparent with our clients, are ahead of the process in terms of our communication and will put our money where our mouths are and provide financial recompense and meaningful apologies when we screw up or don’t meet our pre-agreed obligations.”

Introduction

Historically, and much like other professions, lawyers would have worked to their own deadlines and the client was pretty much kept at arms length – and in the dark. It sounds trite but “Lawyer knows best” even though not repeated in the same way as the medical profession would have still been the school of thinking. In other words woe betide you if you happen to question the reason why something wasn’t done quickly enough.

Of course, communication was a great deal slower which meant, if nothing else, that the postal service could always be relied up to provide a bit of grace when the heat was turned up.

Once telex and the fax machine arrived it ultimately meant that there were greater demands on a lawyer’s time but still there would have been no programme to capture good client service. The best barometer of it would have been, normally, the number of word of mouth (“WOM”) referrals that were generated. But if you dig a bit deeper there was often at least one other factor at work: some sort of closed network in operation. Perhaps an old school chum or friend of the family. In other words, no matter how generalist it seems, it cannot be said that all WOM referrals that were generated were done on the back of under promising and over delivering – perhaps the simplest way of embracing a nascent client service programme (for a more detailed observation on this please see the comments below on developing a WOW customer service programme).

The reason I can be quite sure of this is:

a) I have born witness to it; and

b) my own family fit this category.

There is perhaps another point to bear in mind that militates against being able to tie together early-years client service and WOM, namely the fact that clients who have a long historical connection with the firm tended to be more tolerant of screw ups or poor or slow service. It is perhaps summed up by the colloquial expression: “That is just how things are with [name or Firm]“.

This old school mentality still pervades certain parts of the profession but is on the wane. In part this is driven by speedier communication, greater regulation, increased accountability, the state of the PI market and a need to compete; but don’t delude yourself into thinking that the profession is on top of things because it isn’t.

Practice Development and Client service

I have previously written about the idea of superpleasing. This is a term that I very gratefully borrowed from David Masiter’s book, Managing the Professional Serive Firm published in 2003. David describes it as when the client is “delighted” and who am I to disagree with this, but I would suggest that this is merely one aspect of superpleasing.

The theme of this blog is Excellence in Professional Practice and, as regards client service, the most important component for me, when you boil down all the frippery, is to ask a very simple (yet subtedly beguiling) question:

“Would you recommend this lawyer to all of your friends, family and closest acquaintances?”

If the reply is remotely tinged about with “Er… um … let me just think about that one…” or there is a moment’s hesitation then you haven’t superpleased. Or may be the more direct question to ask is would you, if you were looking for the best technically qualified, gifted lawyer who provided outstanding – above and beyond the call of duty – service, hire yourself? No, then you haven’t passed the superpleasing threshold. In fact you may not even have got passed first base.

The reason why I am so obsessed about the idea of client service is that I am absolutely committed to an independent legal profession where the centuries of very fine tradition don’t get washed down the toilet for the sake of commoditisation – which in common parlance means getting something on the cheap. Or perhaps less harshly you pay for what you get.

Now I am not advocating that we hold on to Mother’s apron strings in the face of some overwhelming evidence that lawyers (or solicitors in the UK) are failing to measure up to their clients’ expectations and if they can lick this then it is – no will – give them a big fat edge in the marketplace. And more than that it will very quickly produce measurable returns on the investment in client service or quality or whatever damn label you feel comfortable with.

Now I am not suggesting that going the bigger is better model route or a variation on the theme is all bad – economies of scale always brings about some positive changes – but I am concerned that if we are not careful a whole group of potential clients will be lost who will never have experienced the very personal and very caring (in most cases) nature of the service and people that they come into contact with. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not deluding myself into thinking that a lot of people who come into the profession don’t do so to make some serious cash but much like medicine, and if my own experience is anything to go by, I came into the profession, no matter how feeble it might sound, to make a difference. I don’t just mean helping the needy or those in a pickle and not able to help themselves. No, I mean working with people and making a difference to their lives. In my case I wanted to sort out what was often very entrenched and bitterly fought over issues to makes things better, get a successful outcome or just enable my clients to look forward in their lives towards a chapter that didn’t involve the stress and worry of a claim.

Most firms acknowledge the need to have service as part of their DNA and usually it is contained in a plethora of documents ranging from the blue sky thinking variety to the more mundane. But regretfully very few firms walk the talk even if some have taken it to heart in their strap lines: “We are a full service law firm committed to delivering excellent client service”. Duh as if there was something else that they should be committed to!

The problem is that very rarely or not often enough do lawyers differentiate sufficiently between technical client service and how they deal on a day to day basis with the client. Just think about it in this way: If lawyers were delivering exceptional client service that could be described as meeting 100% of the clients’ demands then there would be no complaints and the regulation would be on the light touch side of the equation. That certainly cannot be said for the UK market. Lawyers of course don’t hold all the Aces in this area. Think about your own experience of other professional service providers. You don’t have to scratch the surface very far to uncover a few skeletons.

For me there is a very business development centric reason why quality service delivery in every respect should be at the top of the agenda of every meeting that you go to (and that includes how you sign your letters and whether you can be bothered to use 1st class or 2nd class post); namely if you get this one *right* then you would be falling over yourself to deal with the number of referrals. Oh sure you would still have to have a programme around capture and training but you sure as hell wouldn’t be chasing your tail looking for work. Just think about the occasions where you have been referred work. Wouldn’t you like to repeat that warm, satisfied experience time after (glorious) time? I know I would.

If you are stuck on how to to get started – rather than simply barking orders or expecting every one to follow you over the ridge (you know without spelling out the risk and reward quotient) – then think about the following opportunities for capture and development of a WOW client experience programme. Note how I have switched to the word “experience” because that is how you are going to have to think when it comes to the lower value, transactional work. An experience and not just bish, bosh and see how quickly you can get the job done.

At the very least you need to have in place a client satisfaction measurement tool. In the old, off-line days, you would have sent a client satisfaction survey but nowadays you can probably do more of this work on-line. Something like Survey Monkey is a good place to start. For goodness sake though don’t make the whole process difficult, troublesome or guarded. Make sure your that your prospective recipient knows what to expect and what will happen to the information. You need to try to get something above 50% as the take up rate. Of course once you have this nice shiny data what are you going to do with it? Frame it? No you are going to share it – good or bad – with the people or team that it relates to it and ideally appoint your chief implementation officer to make sure that every niggle, complaint or misgiving from the survey is picked up and dealt with. Nothing will be too small. If someone didn’t like your carpet or worse still the air freshener in the toilet then change it. Don’t give into the temptation to gloss over these things and put them in the trivial, we couldn’t care a blessed thing box.

One would hope that the exercise is not a girdle tightening exercise but rather it might just give rise to a more fundamental review of client service where you might start thinking about some of the following:

1. What does value look like to the client?

2. How do we make each client feel special and different?

3. Do we listen enough to the clients demands (even if we don’t necessarily agree with all of them)?

4. Do we allow the client access to their file on-line, day or night so that they can see at a glance what is going on?

5. Do we give enough information about the process? BTW how many firms now have a comprehensive Q&A section for all the transactional and process driven work that they undertake?

6. Fine each lawyer if they lapse into using legalease or technical terms that the client hasn’t the foggiest about?

7. Keep their promises on deadlines (my biggest complaint)?

8. Show an interest in your matter beyond the closing of the file. I can hear this one rattling around in your heads but why should you not follow things up at 3 or 6 months and ask how things are going?.

By now the point should be firmly in place but just imagine if you did all these things you would be so much more likely to find that your client returned to instruct you again, they heartily encouraged all their friends etc to use you and of perhaps even greater import they are less likely to be so fees sensitive.

If you truly want to stand out from all your competitors in a very crowded market then surely this has to be one area you can make a meaningful difference without having to heavily invest in rebranding or repositioning in the market. You could go much further than telling everyone about your exquisite service and consider the following:

i. Have a service level agreement between you and the client which meant that if you failed to deliver that you would reimburse your client some of your fees or provide them with a cash incentive of some sort.

ii. Have a codified WOW list which all the firm could recite. This would mean that everyone knew what was expected of them and could be used as part of the marketing for the firm. It would certainly look good to provide the client with a proper service guide which was meaningful and supported by sanctions if things were handled incorrectly.

iii. There could be financial incentives within the teams for those who scored the most highly on the client satisfaction surveys. Or perhaps more contentious would be to reduce the drawings or pay of the partners if their teams performed poorly.

iv. It would also help with recruiting and finding out if the prospective candidates were happy to sign up to such a strict set of criteria.

Conclusion

Whatever you do, don’t thing that this can be put off or played around with. It can’t. Just think of your expectations about the purchase of products and services over the last 10 years. As a nation we are more likely to stand on our rights and demand those and if we don’t get our way then we will vote with our feet. Given the fragmented nature of the market that will simply mean that the market will not be short of places for this client to slip away to. Now you may think: “Good riddance” but that would be totally missing the point. Client relationships needs to be cherished. Don’t just take it from me that is what Professor Stephen Mason said at an event that I attended last week. And guess what: I agree with him. Going forward if we want to keep our practices vibrant and prosperous then we are going to have to get super smart about this stuff.

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